For the better part of seven months, I referred to the movie Disobedience as “the lesbian spit movie.” It premiered at the Toronto Film Festival, and all I really knew about it was that one famous Rachel was going to spit in another famous Rachel’s mouth during sex. I was sold — hook, line, and sinker.
Waiting proved difficult, so I bought the novel by Naomi Alderman upon which the movie is based and devoured it while on vacation in Greece. (For the record, there’s no spitting in the book.) At last, April came, and I finally feasted my eyes on the movie I long longed for, which is fitting, because Disobedience brims with irrepressible, sweaty-palmed longing and anticipation.
The famous Rachels in question — Weisz and McAdams — deliver bruising, dynamic performances as Ronit and Esti respectively, two former friends and lovers from the same tiny bubble of a Jewish orthodox community in the London suburbs. Ronit got out, went to New York and redefined herself and her life. Esti stayed, married Ronit’s cousin Dovid, lived life the way she was expected to.
The death of Ronit’s father, the community’s influential leader and rabbi, brings her back to the place and people she left behind. At first, her reunion with Esti is taut and anxious, made melancholy by words left unsaid. When Ronit asks why she didn’t tell her she married Dovid, Esti shrugs. “You disappeared,” she says softly, but McAdams laces her delivery with a chilling, pointed iciness, making it a subtle but slicing accusation rather than a mere statement of fact.
McAdams’ performance throughout is surprising and arresting. Ronit is the kind of person who fills silence, who talks a lot and always speaks her mind, and Weisz has fun with that, a bold and brash contrast to the terse surroundings of Ronit’s past life. Esti is more exacting with her words. Even her simplest, most quiet utterings drip with meaning and hint at more. That’s a tricky performance to pull off, and McAdams does it well, making Esti much more than a tragic character, making it known that she’s more in control of her life than meets the eye.
The build-up to Esti and Ronit’s first kiss is aching. Of course, it isn’t their first kiss at all. Just their first kiss on-screen, their first kiss as adults. But it’s very clear that they’ve done this before, that they are returning to a place they know very well, a familiarity amplified by urgent desire. Somehow, their kisses become more and more urgent as the movie goes on, each one more intense than the last. “Lovesong” by The Cure is the only song other than religious hymns that plays over the course of the film, and its lyrics are on-the-nose but in a way that works. After dancing around it for a bit, Disobedience finally becomes strikingly explicit about Ronit and Esti’s history, making the swift jump from subtext to bold text.
And when their sex scene finally comes, the sex scene I anticipated for so many months, it’s overwhelmingly hot and emotional all at once. It instantly became one of my favorite lesbian sex scenes of all time, the small details like the way Esti kisses Ronit’s hand with an open mouth, the way Ronit pulls off Esti’s sheitel and plays with her hair, elevate the scene, infusing their intimacy with specificity and a tenderness that keeps it from feeling gratuitous.
And folks, I can verify wholeheartedly that the spitting does not disappoint. This, too, they have done before. And it’s that knowing way they cater to each other’s desires that makes it so sexy, so real. They’re exploring each other while revisting simultaneously. Sex with an ex is complicated business, even when it’s good. And Disobedience lives in that beautiful mess of a place. The spitting feels almost like a spiritual ritual.
Religion, after all, isn’t merely a motif in Disobedience. It’s at the core of the story, an indelible part of the film’s narrative fabric and imagery just as its an indelible part of Esti and Ronit’s lives. Their attraction to one another as young girls was immediately classified as disobedience, as a departure from not only what was expected of them but what was right and natural according to the doctrine by which their entire community lives. It’s ironic, then, that Ronit’s father’s devotion to the synagogue was the reason why she and Esti could easily sneak around unnoticed, act on their desires as young girls.
Ronit returns to mourn her father, but it becomes evident that an invisible thread also kept her connected to Esti all these years, eventually tugging them back to one another. After sex, Esti confesses that she used to imagine Ronit in New York, that she kept track of the time difference between them. There’s a deep-rooted sadness there, just as there is when Esti nods in the affirmative when Ronit asks her if she still only fancies women. That small, quiet movement from McAdams conveys so much with so little, and Disobedience truly thrives in its restraint, striking a stunning balance between being explicit about its queer love story but also nuanced and subtle in its complex emotional storytelling.
In short: This gorgeous movie featuring two famous Rachels and lesbian spitplay will probably make you cry. It’s sad throughout but not exactly tragic. The ending, like any good one, is open to interpretation without being wishy-washy. One last urgent, desperate kiss says more than Esti and Ronit can bring themselves to utter. The invisible thread between them persists.